Des­per­a­tion sets in as flood death toll in Colom­bia tops 200.

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY ALBA TOBELLA

MOCOA, COLOM­BIA | Towns­peo­ple des­per­ately searched their ru­ined homes and the lo­cal hos­pi­tal for loved ones Sun­day after a tor­rent of wa­ter, mud and de­bris swept through a city in south­ern Colom­bia, caus­ing more than 200 deaths, many of them chil­dren, and leav­ing hun­dreds more miss­ing and in­jured.

Neigh­bor­hoods were left strewn with rocks, wooden planks, tree limbs and brown muck after heavy rain caused the three rivers that sur­round Mocoa to rise up and surge through the city of 40,000 Fri­day night and early Satur­day as peo­ple slept. The del­uge smashed houses, tore trees out by the roots and washed cars and trucks away.

Search-and-res­cue teams combed through the de­bris and helped peo­ple who had been claw­ing at huge mounds of mud by hand. Many had lit­tle left to search.

“Peo­ple went to their houses and found noth­ing but the floor,” said Gilma Diaz, a 42-year-old woman from an­other town who came to search for a cousin.

Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos, who vis­ited Mocoa for a sec­ond straight day Sun­day, de­clared the area a disas­ter zone and said the death toll stood at 210. But that could still rise be­cause authorities said there were more than 200 in­jured, some in crit­i­cal con­di­tion and peo­ple were con­tin­u­ing to lo­cate re­mains in the de­bris. The pres­i­dent said on Twit­ter that 170 of the dead had been iden­ti­fied.

Dozens stood in the door of a hos­pi­tal, hop­ing for news of fam­ily mem­bers who were not on the list of those con­firmed dead or in­jured. Oth­ers fran­ti­cally knocked on rel­a­tives’ doors, hop­ing to find some­one with in­for­ma­tion about their loved ones.

The disas­ter seemed to hit young peo­ple par­tic­u­larly hard. Mr. San­tos said 43 of the dead iden­ti­fied so far were chil­dren, per­haps be­cause young­sters were al­ready in bed when the flood­wa­ters struck.

Maria Cor­doba, a 52-year-old res­i­dent who was try­ing to wash her be­long­ings in a river, said two of her neph­ews, ages 6 and 11, were killed when their house was de­stroyed. “The mother as well was to­tally beaten up” but man­aged to save her 18-month-old baby, she said.

A res­cue worker in an or­ange jump­suit emerged from one search area with the body of an in­fant wrapped in a towel. Not far away, Abe­lardo So­larte, a 48-yearold res­i­dent of Mocoa, held a child’s shoe as he helped clear de­bris.

“You have no idea how many kids there are around here,” Mr. So­larte said.

Jair Echarri, who came from a nearby town to help, also strug­gled to com­pre­hend the loss of so many chil­dren. “I feel an enor­mous sad­ness be­cause it’s filled with kids’ things, toys, clothes, school books,” he said. “I am a father and this breaks my heart.”

Mr. San­tos said the avalanche of wa­ter and de­bris also de­stroyed roads and bridges, knocked out power in half of the prov­ince of Pu­tu­mayo, where Mocoa is lo­cated, and de­stroyed the area’s fresh wa­ter net­work, cre­at­ing dan­ger­ous and un­san­i­tary con­di­tions.

Mocoa is vul­ner­a­ble to flood­ing. It is sur­rounded by the three rivers in a nat­u­ral basin cre­ated by the sur­round­ing moun­tains.

The dan­ger has grown worse in re­cent years be­cause of de­for­esta­tion, which elim­i­nates some pro­tec­tion from runoff, and be­cause many peo­ple built their homes close to the wa­ter. But the trig­ger­ing event was rain­fall of more than 5 inches (130 mil­lime­ters) that be­gan late Fri­day.

A 1989 hy­drol­ogy re­port for the Agri­cul­tural Min­istry warned that just such a disas­ter could hap­pen un­less steps were taken to re­in­force the river­banks, chan­nel wa­ter away from the town and re­store some of the for­est. It was not im­me­di­ately clear why those steps had not been taken.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sur­vivors re­cover their be­long­ings in Mocoa, Colom­bia Sun­day. Neigh­bor­hoods were left strewn with rocks, wooden planks, tree limbs, and brown muck after heavy rain caused the three rivers sur­round­ing the city to rise up and surge on Fri­day.

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